IN THEIR POLICY Forum “China-U.S.
cooperation to advance nuclear power” (5
August, p. 547), J. Cao et al. make the case
for low-carbon energy trajectories that
use “next-generation” nuclear reactors.
However, they fail to address the challenges
inherent in the reactors they advocate.
Cao et al. correctly assert that “Some
studies project that a doubling or quadrupling of nuclear energy output is required
in the next few decades.” They neglect to
add that there are also numerous peer-reviewed studies showing that 100%
renewables scenarios are technologically
feasible and economically competitive.
Unlike some of the reactors proposed by
Cao et al., these could be deployed rapidly
(1). Moreover, more scalable and commercially available energy efficiency options
can displace the need for new sources of
nuclear supply (2).
Cao et al. also correctly state that
renewable sources of energy in Germany
have been heavily subsidized. However,
Germany has devoted subsidies to
the nuclear industry that more than
double those allotted to all renewables
put together (3). The United States has
provided the nuclear industry with at
least 10 times the subsidies devoted to
renewables (4). Despite these investments, renewables costs are falling fairly
quickly, whereas nuclear costs continue to
rise (5–7). In India and China, despite late
starts on development, electricity production from wind has overtaken nuclear (8).
In restructured markets that allow con-
sumers to choose from a variety of energy
options, renewables have been shown to
be cheaper than nuclear power (9).
Cao et al. portray a variety of reactors
as “innovative” and “next generation,” yet
similar reactors have been under develop-
ment since the 1960s (10). Sodium-cooled
fast reactors and liquid metal-cooled fast
reactors, as well as conventional small
pressurized water reactors, have a history
of costly experiments. In the West, these
earlier programs were abandoned, despite
decades of research and development
commitment and high governmental pri-
oritization, due to economic unviability
and safety issues (11). Even if some newer
versions of these technologies prove
viable and acceptable, the time scale to
commercial deployment will inevitably be
measured in decades.
Cao et al. suggest collaborative plans,
especially for small modular reactors,
between consortia in China and the
United States as possible ways forward.
However, it is unclear why these projects
should have priority in terms of governmental support. Tellingly, there is no
commercially operating small modular
reactor anywhere in the world (12). There
is also very limited licensing experience
with small modular reactors. The cost is
essentially unknown, and public acceptability completely untested.
Pouring resources into “innovative”
reactor technologies could be a damaging
distraction. We must give balanced con-
sideration to a full range of alternative
low-carbon energy options rather than
focus uncritically on nuclear energy.
Philip Johnstone, Benjamin K. Sovacool,*
Gordon MacKerron, Andy Stirling
Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex,
Brighton, BN1 9RH, UK.
1. C. Budischak et al., J. Power Sources 225, 60 (2013).
2. M. A. Brown, B. K. Sovacool, Energy Efficiency 1, 35
3. International Energy Agency, Research and Development
Database (2014); http://wds.iea.org.
4. B. Healey, N. Pfund, What Would Jefferson Do? (DLB
5. M. Liebreich, BLOOMBERG New Energy Finance Summit:
In Search of the Miraculous (Bloomberg New Energy
6. International Energy Agency, World Energy Outlook
(International Energy Agency, 2015).
7. D. Suna, G. Resch, Energy Pol. 98, 199 (2016).
8. B. Chabot, “Wind power and nuclear electricity production
in China , India , Brazil and South Africa (BICS) up to
2015“ (2016), pp. 1–7; http://cf01.erneuerbareenergien.
9. National Audit Office, Nuclear Power in the UK (National
Audit Office, 2016).
10. T. B. Cochran et al ., Fast Breeder Reactor Programs:
History and Status (International Panel on Fissile
11. M. V. Ramana, “The Forgotten History of Small
Nuclear Reactors,” IEEE Spectrum (2015), pp.
12. World Nuclear Association, Small modular reactors
IN THEIR POLICY Forum “China-U.S.
cooperation to advance nuclear power”
(5 August, p. 547), Cao et al. parse data
in a way that makes nuclear energy seem
faster to deploy than renewable energy.
A closer look at those data suggests
Cao et al. claim that nuclear power
programs have historically driven the
fastest growth of low-carbon power, but
data in their ref. S1 (1) show that renewables’ output (excluding hydropower)
grew 6.3 times as fast as nuclear power
in 2015. In Figure 2, Cao et al. compare
seven nations’ average annual increases of
nuclear vs. solar-and-windpower electricity. China’s world-leading (2) renewable
increases appear to be less than a tenth
as fast as Denmark’s because the chart
divides the energy per capita, which
inflates the numbers for less populous
countries. However, the population of
the country producing the energy is not
relevant to different technologies’ relative
speed in absolute carbon savings.
Cao et al. also disadvantage renewables’
Edited by Jennifer Sills
short lead times and rapid recent growth
Cao et al. further deemphasize
renewables by counting only solar and
Nuclear energy remains
a controversial addition to
low-carbon energy plans.